Changing landscape makes Razorback game with ASU finally worth it

After a few relatively quiet weeks on the Razorback football front, the dam of information burst open on Wednesday and Thursday this week.

Thursday the Razorbacks officially announced four new position coaches for the football team with the hires of Jermial Ashley (defensive line), Michael Scherer (linebackers), Kenny Guiton (receivers), and Cody Kennedy (tight ends). All are relatively young but are excellent recruiters and coaches, according to Arkansas coach Sam Pittman.

However, the big news came Wednesday when the University of Arkansas athletics department announced a truly watershed decision that has been in the works since former athletic director Jeff Long and former head football coach Bret Bielema were ousted by the UA Board of Trustees in 2017 to make way for Gus Malzahn and an athletic director to be named later.

Yes, the football game between Arkansas and Arkansas State set for the 2025 season has been on the minds of Board of Trustees and Gov. Asa Hutchinson for at least that long.

Of course, plans don’t always work out exactly as formulated or as quickly as one might want.

When the decision was made to send Long packing, the plan to bring Malzahn back home to Arkansas was already falling apart as he rallied Auburn to upsets of Georgia and Alabama to win the SEC Western Division title in 2017.

At that point Arkansas’ offer to Malzahn was just a bargaining chip for super agent Jimmy Sexton to up Auburn’s ante to keep Malzahn in place on the plains.

With Malzahn staying at Auburn for the time being, Sexton executed his bait-and-switch of then SMU coach Chad Morris as a replacement for Malzahn before Arkansas had hired its new athletic director.

While technically Arkansas hired Hunter Yurachek before Morris on the books, the deal for Morris was already in place prior to Yurachek accepting the A.D. job.

In other words, Morris was Yurachek’s problem, but in reality, he wasn’t his hire.

The idea of Arkansas playing Arkansas State in Little Rock was in the atmosphere at the time, too, but wisely the UA went at that slowly thanks to Yurachek.

No doubt, he knew resistance to the idea from old-time Razorbacks would wane as time drifted by. Yurachek wisely allowed the scheduling of other UA system programs in sports besides football and basketball to grease the wheels for the UA-ASU game.

It’s a good thing for the UA that the ASU game wasn’t placed on the Hogs’ schedule more quickly. Morris might not have been the only person to make a quick exit from the hill if ASU had somehow been forced onto the Arkansas schedule in 2019, and the Razorbacks had lost.

A football loss to the Red Wolves would have had Yurachek on the hot seat, too.

Yes, Yurachek is right that the world didn’t end when Arkansas lost a mid-week baseball game to UALR a couple of years ago. As he pointed out, those Hogs even made it to the College World Series.

However, football and baseball aren’t the same. It’s not even close. If Arkansas loses to ASU on Sept. 6, 2025, I can guarantee you, the Razorbacks won’t be playing in the College Football Playoffs.

I’m one of those old-time Razorback fans that isn’t exactly thrilled to see Arkansas State on the Hogs’ schedule. I personally still believe the policy former UA athletic directors John Barnhill and Frank Broyles of not playing other in-state teams was the right one for their time.

During their tenures as athletic director, the Razorbacks had nothing to gain by playing in-state opponents, and everything to lose. It simply wasn’t good business to play Arkansas State or any of the other in-state programs.

My analogy has always been that you don’t see McDonald’s helping Burger King sell hamburgers.

However, landscapes change over time, and policies have to change with them.

Now, there is something the Razorbacks can gain by playing Arkansas State under the conditions of the 2025 game, and Yurachek expertly explained it to everyone in his Wednesday press conference.

At one time, it was not only advantageous but also a necessity for the Razorbacks to play four games in Little Rock during seasons in which it had seven home games because War Memorial Stadium was not only centrally located, but it was a bigger stadium. More butts in the stadium, meant more money to run not just the football program but the entire scope of the men’s and women’s athletic programs.

When additions were made to Razorback Stadium that increased its seating capacity to nearly 75,000 in the early 2000s, it made economic sense to move most games to Fayetteville instead of the 54,000-seat War Memorial Stadium. Completion of Interstate 49 and a regional airport in the late 1990s helped make it an easier move, too.

Changes to recruiting rules also played a big role in reducing the number of games in Little Rock. For the longest time, Arkansas could host recruits at its games in War Memorial Stadium, but that hasn’t been the case for some time due to NCAA regulations. Every Little Rock game is a lost opportunity for the Hogs to recruit.

Hosting recruits for games on campus is one of the biggest recruiting tools any program has, and the loss of that opportunity in Little Rock was key in the reduction of Razorback games being played in the state capital over the years.

The need to retain as many recruiting opportunities on campus, especially for SEC games, is key for the rebuilding process that Pittman is in the midst of right now. It would hurt the Razorbacks’ recruiting efforts to surrender the final recruiting weekend in Fayetteville as had been happening by playing the final game of the season at War Memorial Stadium.

That said it is extremely important for the Razorbacks to retain an actual on-the-field presence in Little Rock for too many reasons to list. There is so much Razorback history tied to games at War Memorial Stadium that it is necessary for the good of the program to continue to play football there.

Two other issues are at play in adding ASU to Arkansas’ schedule in 2025 — money and Covid-19. Really they are one and the same. The reduction of revenue Covid-19 has forced on the program is tremendous. Reducing game capacity by nearly 80 percent for football and somewhat less for basketball to follow Covid-19 guidelines has cratered Arkansas’ athletic budget like it has to college sports programs across the nation.

Hopefully such reductions will be in the rear-view mirror by September, but playing more regional games in all sports just make sense across the board. Again we hope for a return to normalcy this year as the vaccine is disseminated, but really we are going to be dealing with a new normal.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to predict what that will be. Tightening the budget by playing more regional opponents is a smart move by Yurachek.

So, what does all that have to do with the Arkansas-ASU matchup becoming a good idea or at least an acceptable answer to a number of the Razorbacks’ issues?

Arkansas needs to play all its SEC home games in Fayetteville for recruiting purposes. So the Missouri game which was being played in Little Rock every other year needed to become a Fayetteville game.

However, Arkansas still needed to maintain a presence in Little Rock not just for tradition or to soothe the souls of central Arkansas Hog fans but to continue to promote the Razorback program, as THE program in the state.

Outside of an SEC game, what would be an attractive game to central Arkansas Hog fans?

It seems a game with ASU.

The game solves both the issue with recruiting and retaining a meaningful game in for the Hogs in Little Rock. Furthermore, it helps with Arkansas and ASU’s budget because it’s less costly for each team to make their way to Little Rock than to pay an opponent to come to Fayetteville or Jonesboro. Each team can sorta claim it as a home game, if they like.

So, now under these conditions that have changed over the years, Arkansas actually sees a benefit to not only playing Arkansas State, but also other instate teams.

Arkansas now has something to gain by playing ASU, which had not been the case in the past, making the game a win-win proposition for both parties.

While Yurachek wouldn’t say how often Arkansas and ASU will play in the future, now that the genie is out of the bottle, they should just go ahead and play each year as long as it is beneficial to the Razorback program.

With all that said, now the onus is on Pittman and to a degree Yurachek — if they are still on the job in 2025 — to make sure the Hogs not only win that game but to also win it convincingly.